Tennessee Electric Chair Challenge Squashed

     (CN) – It is premature to settle a challenge death-row inmates brought against Tennessee’s plan to use the electric chair as a backup execution method, the state’s high court ruled.
     Stephen West and four other death-sentenced inmates sued the state in 2013 over a then-newly adopted single-drug lethal injection protocol. While their suit was pending, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Capital Punishment Enforcement Act, which said electrocution can be used to carry out death sentences if lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional or an essential injection ingredient is unavailable.
     The inmates amended their lawsuit last year to challenge the electrocution backup protocol. A Davidson County Chancellor denied the state’s motion to dismiss in December, finding that the inmates may have valid claims.
     Last week, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the Davidson County Chancery Court’s denial of the state’s dismissal motion, finding their claims to be premature because neither of the two lethal injection contingencies has occurred.
     “The electrocution causes of action depend entirely on future and contingent events that have not occurred and may never occur, and as a result, are unripe and nonjusticiable,” Justice Cornelia Clark wrote for the court’s five-judge panel. “Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court erred by denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss the electrocution causes of action of the amended complaint. The judgment of the trial court is reversed, and the electrocution causes of action are dismissed.”
     Clark found the inmates’ concern about their right to notice of their execution method legitimate but ruled that it was not enough to move forward with their electric chair challenge because the electrocution method currently does not and may never apply to them.
     “None of the inmates has an execution date scheduled because all of the inmates have received stays of execution from this court, which will remain in effect ‘until final disposition’ of the declaratory judgment action challenging lethal injection,” she wrote. “All orders setting new execution dates will direct the state to ensure that the death-sentenced inmates receive adequate notice, prior to their scheduled execution dates, of the method that [the Tennessee Department of Correction] will use to carry out their executions and of any decision by the commissioner or TDOC to rely upon the [Capital Punishment Enforcement Act].”
     The Tennessee Supreme Court also ruled against the death row inmates in March, holding that they do not have a right to know the identities of executioners.
     The lethal injection trial began Tuesday in Davidson County Chancery Court, according to court records.

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